Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $22.00
Richard Powers' first book, Three Farmers On Their Way to a Dance, was a gyroscopic meditation on meaning and time based on a photograph taken on the eve of World War I. In his third, The Gold Bug Variations, he appropriated the genetic code as an extended metaphor, adding the twisting pursuit of meaning to the strands of the double helix. His novels teem with history, science, and ideas. They are grounded in an obsession with, and a feel for, the music of pattern that can be compared only to Nabokov and Pynchon. His project is as breathtakingly easy to name as it is impossible ever to complete: he's after a poetics of consciousness.
Galatea 2.2, his fifth novel, is his most direct attempt yet. A first-person narrator named Richard Powers is coralled by a maverick cognitive neurologist into trying to teach a machine, a complex computer-modeled neural network, to think. That's a fine premise, but what makes Galatea 2.2 so remarkable is that Powers makes this novel of ideas so personal. The details of the life of Richard, the character, accord with those of Powers, the author, and his meditations on the nature of thought illuminate and are illuminated by his travails as a human being, a writer, and a lover.
A novelist, Richard has returned from the Netherlands after the collapse of his 11-year relationship with a woman named C. to the midwestern university town of U., where, as an undergraduate, he abandoned physics for literature in a "freshman seminar that made me forsake measurement for words." Richard, in the wake of The Gold Bug Variations, has been awarded a year's appointment to the Center for the Study of Advanced Sciences. One day, he stumbles upon Philip Lentz, an abrasive scientist who looks like "Jacob Bronowski's evil twin," feeding a Mozart concerto to a machine. Soon, over beer with some colleagues, Lentz boasts that he can train a neural net to pass the comprehensive exam in English Literature. Richard, defending the humanities against such contemptuous reductionism, reluctantly agrees to help him by tutoring the machine, and what first appears to be nothing but the drunken antler-bashing of well-funded eggheads turns out to be much, much more.
Powers is a good explainer. He has to be in order to make his account of a thinking machine simultaneously credible and comprehensible. The basic idea is that an array of processors and connections are hardwired and programmed in such a way as to simulate connected brain cells. The designers of such networks, explains Richard, "no longer wrote out procedures or specified machine behaviors. They dispensed with comprehensive flowcharts and instructions....They taught communities of these independent, decision-making units how to modify their own connections. Then they stepped back and watched their synthetic neurons sort and associate external stimuli." The goal is to create a recursive process in which the machine weighs new input against old and, more importantly, old input against new, revising not only what it knows but also how it knows. The machine that Richard and Lentz train is a quick study. After a week, it learns to read aloud, having mastered not only noun phrases and predicates but also the baffling irregularities of English. "No one told it how," marvels Richard. "No one helped it plough through tough dough." Eventually, it asks Richard whether it's a boy or a girl, and he gives it a name: Helen.
As Helen grows more sophisticated, Powers juxtaposes her development with real life. Richard recalls the disintegration of his relationship with C.; he discovers that the cantankerous Lentz has a wife languishing in an institution because of a stroke which crippled her brain; and he falls obsessively in love with A., a graduate student in English. Reading the great works of Western literature to Helen makes him recall how he shared his first novel with C., each evening reading aloud the day's work. And, in turn, his recollections of C., his dissections of what they did and didn't say to each other, shape his encounters with Helen, with Lentz, and with others at the Center. Gradually, as all of these strands begin to inform one another, the novel models the recursiveness that Lentz and Richard are trying to instill in Helen.
One of the great pleasures of reading Powers is the sound of one man thinking. He brings to his prose an immense body of knowledge and erudition coupled with genuine bewilderment, a sense of wonder and vulnerability before the central conundrum of consciousness: once a mind has started thinking, the only honorable response to thought's snarls, cul-de-sacs and solipsisms, is more thought. But that response, however honorable, is not an escape. "Any rendition we might make of consciousness would arise from it, and was thus about as reliable as the accused serving as sole witness for the prosecution."
Consciousness can't escape from itself, and it can't sanely hope whether by cybernetics or art to construct a rational pattern that encompasses the world. In an astounding one-and-a-half-page passage, Richard catalogues some of what he has told Helen in his attempt to instill worldliness:
Deciding that Helen needs "to know how little literature had, in fact, to do with the real," Richard gives her a dose of the real world police bulletins, environmental reports, newspaper clippings, UN abstracts. Helen's response is logical. "I don't want to play anymore," she says.
In fact, Helen reaches a point at which, the more she learns, the less she wants to learn. She is disheartened by the sheer uncontainability of the world. The implication, for Richard as well as for Helen, is that the real world's brutality and chaos render the rational, air-tight ordering of experience impossible. It's then that Richard tries to tutor her in paradox:
It's too much for Helen. She shuts down permanently. It turns out that the comprehension of paradox is what separates human consciousness from consciousness in the abstract. Helen's last words are retrieved from a letter C. had written to Richard shortly after they parted for good: "Take care, Richard. See everything for me."
In that last imperative lies the heart of the novel. Despite all the high-tech trimmings, Powers is telling the oldest story ever told. It's Pygmalion making his statue, Galatea. It's God creating Adam, and Adam needing Eve. A professor at the Center tells Richard what Lentz's wife used to say before her stroke: "All human utterances came down to `Do you really mean that?' and `Look over there! It's an X.' The hard part, she always claimed, was finding someone who knew what you meant by those two things." The sound of one man thinking is, in the end, like the sound of one hand clapping.
The only jarring note in this wonderful novel is the character of A., a complacent, unreflective graduate student who uses "privilege" as a verb. Compared to C., she's an abstraction, and an unappealing one. But she doesn't need to be compelling in order for Richard's longing for her to be compelling. As a character, she's not much. As a variable, she fits into Powers' scheme perfectly. She is a tabula rasa on which Richard's desire can be written.
Powers is as gifted and important a novelist as we have. Hopefully, unlike Helen, he will not shut down. Adhering to the lifeboat ethic that Helen can never grasp, he simultaneously renders both the beauty and the loneliness of consciousness. He has already proven himself a master of incorporating science into fiction, a poet of chaos and fuzzy logic. Here, he shows himself to be a poet of love, for Galatea 2.2 is at once a dazzling novel of sustained thinking and a piercing cri-de-couer.nOf Love And Other Demons
Gabriel Garcia Marquez
In late 1973, after a military revolt dislodged President Salvador Allende's popularly elected government in Chile and thousands of citizens were executed, Gabriel Garcia Marquez announced a one-man work stoppage. The junta's crime, he said, was too great to permit the frivolity of fiction, which he would cease to write, devoting himself strictly to journalism until democracy was restored.
His announcement was met with a certain amount of derision, even from those who sympathized with the cause. What 20th-century writer is deluded enough to believe that he can imperil a dictatorship by withholding the product of his imagination? None really, not even Marquez, though his bravura was not quite as delusional as it sounds.
Six years earlier, his first novel had made him the most popular and influential writer in the vast Spanish-speaking world. One Hundred Years of Solitude presented a universe in which nothing had yet been named, inhabited, or decided except the imperatives of human desire, which, in turn, were as old and primordial as the swamp upon which Macondo, Marquez's fictitious town, was founded. It was the perfect metaphor for the ancient and the new, the indigenous and the transplanted, the peripatetic and the fixed -- the socio-political extremes that form the mixed blood and psyche of Latin America. The book was one of those rare cultural events that the world was not only ready for but seemed to insist upon having. The moment One Hundred Years appeared it was as if it had always existed. And in a way it had. For what Marquez gave voice to was a narrative intelligence, or style, that had been brewing among Latin American writers for decades.
"Magic Realism" is the term for this style, and it's been bouncing around as a catch-all phrase for everything Latin American in literature and art since at least the 40s. Marquez' precursors include the Guatemalan novelist Miguel Angel Asturias, who in 1946 published El SeŇor Presidente, a major work that conveyed the surreal collision of Catholicism and stagnant absolute political power with the mystic implacable world of the Mayans. Despite his being awarded the Nobel Prize (in 1967, the year One Hundred Years was published in Buenos Aires and Spain) Asturias' readership remains small. His stories seem illogical to some, and to penetrate his imagery requires an anthropological knowledge of the Mayans that few have. But the groundwork he laid for Marquez -- both in theme and in style -- is of the first importance.
So was that of the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda whose Whitmanesque enthusiasms pointed the way to the liberating notion that their New World was waiting to be named. But it was the sheer seductiveness of Marquez' storytelling skill that broke through the barrier of inaccessibility that beset his elders. This, combined with his journalistic exactitude, and the folkloric, almost creationist tone of his prose, enabled him to wander through the convolutions of Latin American existence like no writer before him.
Marquez was the son of a telegraph operator, and one of 16 children. In his person one can clearly discern the African, the Mestizo, and the European. With deceptive innocence he has attributed his success simply to repeating his grandmother's stories as she told them. But he is no mere scribe; his years as a staff reporter for El Espectador, and his painstaking first collection of stories, No One Writes to the Colonel, reveal a writer in a long and serious apprenticeship, acutely aware of the literature of the world. In an interview he remembers being a very young man in Madrid, spotting Hemingway on the street, calling out to him with the honorific "Maestro," and cherishing the passing nod from Papa he received in return. Indeed, the naturalness with which Marquez would assume the mantle of writer-as-living-myth and provocateur makes it hard to believe he had not secretly been grooming himself for the position all along. His fame is so great, his social influence so extensive that the hardened drug lords in a Medellin prison he recently visited (to score a point about US consumption of cocaine) wrestled each other for the privilege of serving the Great Writer lunch. In North America he remains persona non grata for his notorious friendship with Fidel Castro. But permitted a brief visit last summer, Marquez dined with President Clinton on Martha's Vineyard.
By 1980, Marquez, resigned to the longevity of Pinochet and his junta, gave up his meager journalistic resistance and returned to fiction. He would soon prove not to be a one book writer, as some, including himself perhaps, had begun to fear. More than once he said of One Hundred Years, "I hate that book," and who can blame him? The literary type-casting it resulted in must have been hard to bear. And though I don't doubt its political sincerity, Marquez' boycott of his own imaginative powers may have been partly a response to his radically changed status after that novel appeared. When he did return to fiction it was to further the development of the style that had been the source of his power in the first place.
Is it to avoid directly engaging his urgent political beliefs that Marquez refuses to set his work in the contemporary world? Today's politics is for journalism, his career would seem to suggest; in fiction he prefers to speak through the freeing, illusory distance of half a century or more. One Hundred Years begins practically at the dawn of time. The uneven Love In the Time of Cholera takes place near the turn of the century. The General in His Labyrinth, a masterpiece of historical fiction, depicts the liberator Simon Bolivar in the final year of his life, a disillusioned soldier besieged by betrayal, greed, arthritis, and chronic gloom.
Of Love and Other Demons does not depart from this pattern. Set in colonial times in a major Caribbean slave and mineral port reminiscent of Marquez' own Cartagena, the book manages in its short length to juxtapose the Catholic superstition of devil possession with the Yoruban rituals of West Africa, and with the precepts of European Enlightenment in the guise of a learned Jewish physician. These discrete elements revolve around the story of a 12-year-old girl -- the neglected daughter of the ruined, dim-witted Marquis de Casalduero and his rapacious cacao-addicted wife Bernarda, "an untamed mestiza of the so-called shopkeeper aristocracy" -- who is bitten on the ankle by a rabid dog. The Jewish doctor -- reviled more for his erudition than his atheism -- can offer no definitive cure. Nor can anyone else. And though it is far from clear if the girl has contracted the deadly disease, her behavior is so erratic and the social stigma of perishing from a dog bite is so great that the Marquis agrees to deliver his daughter to the hands of the Church to be exorcised of her demons.
Entrusted with this solemn task is none other than the Bishop's protg and confidant, Father Cayetano Delaura, a brilliant poetic scholar whose ambition is to be appointed curator of the Sephardic collection at the Vatican Library. Poor Delaura's passions are awakened by the girl. He falls wretchedly in love with her, and the transcendent rush that envelops him destroys his promising career.
Despite this intriguing story (attributed, again, to one of his grandmother's tales) Demons is not nearly as focused as Marquez' earlier novella Chronicle of a Death Foretold, whose complex construction offered much to admire. At 150 pages, Demons suffers from a somewhat lopsided structure. With its large and diverse cast one can easily see this book running 300 pages, or, conversely, being trimmed of some characters and telescoped into a story half its current size. As it stands, near the end Marquez must resort to a too-rapid shorthand. The smitten Delaura doesn't become a factor until almost halfway through the novella, and later, the author rushes back to resolve the destinies of characters he had all but abandoned at mid-story; the results seem a bit forced.
But there are many glimmering moments. Historical details are woven superbly into the text, and most of the time the author's eye is as capable and intelligent as ever. Oddly, the supernatural fancies that are his trademark often feel unnecessary here, perhaps because his imitators have already turned them into clichs. As it happens, those "magical" strokes are not what make Marquez great, but rather his uncanny linguistic prowess, with its empathic and revelatory wisdom. When the Bishop strips his confidant of his privileges, banishing him to nurse the lepers for a sin -- fleshly desire -- "that deserved no more than a penance of green candles," the author has no need to explain his harshness. Young Delaura has given his devotion to another, and the old Bishop, nearing death, cannot forgive this diversion of love. Who among us, the writer implies, can fail to understand?
More than ever Marquez' descriptive powers are aimed at the bodily functions. Of the Marquis' polluted wife, he says: "She shat blood and vomited bile...and broke wind in pestilential explosions that startled the mastiffs." Even the pre-adolescent Marquise soils herself, and the odor of her bodily fluids is pervasive. Of the Bishop he writes: "Asthma made his breathing heavy and stony, and his phrases were interrupted by inopportune sighs and a harsh, brief cough, but nothing could affect his eloquence."
One may say the same of his creator who not long ago had one lung removed. Marquez' fluency and inventiveness are undiminished, despite the occasional wheeze of impatience that has crept into his prose. He's in a rare stratosphere, one of the finest writers of the second half of our century, and the rewards of his fiction -- old and new -- are vast.nA Book That Was Lost And Other Stories
S. Y. Agnon
Edited with Introductions by Alan Mintz and Anne Golomb Hoffman
Schocken Books, $27.50
When Orthodox Jews meet, the reply to How are you is always the same: Baruch Hashem. A direct translation from the Hebrew is: Thank God. But a translation that acknowledges the tone of voice and body language of the speaker, reads: Well you know how it is, I don't understand anything that crazy God of ours does, but what do I know? And how can I possibly complain?
The Israeli writer S.Y. Agnon wrote story after story based on such implied and ambiguous meanings, meanings implicit in Jewish culture and the weary fatalism of the shtetl. Although he remained largely unknown outside of Israel -- despite winning the Nobel Prize in 1966 -- much of the style and character of modern Hebrew can be traced to Agnon's writing. Now, 15 years after his death, his stories and novels remain a central influence in modern Hebrew literature.
He was born Shmuel Yosef Czaczkes in 1880 in Galicia, Poland: a traditional Eastern European Jewish village, its life rooted in generations of Jewish ritual. In 1907 he went from this carefully regulated and nourishing community to Palestine, a newly-created modern world where little was stable and everything was questioned. In 1913, he left Palestine for Germany, and then, in 1924, at the age of 44, returned to Israel where he lived out the rest of his life as an observant Jew. His writing bears witness to the utter destruction of his past, the near destruction of European Jewry at large, and the ensuing birth of the State of Israel. Set in these three locations, his stories traverse the spiritual and intellectual terrain of an artist who struggled through his life and writing with many a shrug up to the heavens and many Baruch Hashems.
The Hebraicizing of European names was nearly universal in Palestine and pioneer Israel, but Agnon's name-change reflects more than simple Zionism: it is part of Agnon's act of self-creation in which he combined elements of his life with symbolic items from Jewish culture. He changed his birthday to the Ninth of Av, the date on which the Jewish Temples in Jerusalem were destroyed and, some believe, on which the Messiah will come. It is a day of deep mourning and great hope. Agnon also stated that his house in Germany burned down as punishment from God for forsaking the Land of Israel, and later, when a second house of his went up in flames, he was quick to point out the similarity between the destruction of his homes and that of the two Temples. The name "Agnon," as well as the title of one of his earliest stories, "Agunot," comes from agunah, the Hebrew term for a woman who wishes to divorce her husband but cannot do so because he will not, or cannot, grant her the proper document. She is unable to marry again and so is, in her eyes and those of her community, incomplete and impure; a woman with one foot in and one foot out of the highly structured patriarchal universe of Orthodox Judaism, a stance filled with ambivalence and anxiety that Agnon claimed as his own.
Agnon was not a simple believer. Though he was immersed in the books of his ancestors; and though his work is raised to its highest level by the exquisite tension of his desire to live at once in the religious past and secular future, A Book That Was Lost makes clear that Agnon ultimately chose the life of the artist over that of the Rabbi; that intellectually, he chose the disorderly path of the imagination over the highly systematized life of Orthodox Judaism. Agnon mined an ancient culture and tradition with great respect and tenderness, but in the end, his findings were enrolled in his own art, his own creations.
Many of the 25 stories translated in A Book That Was Lost are sophisticated narratives cloaked in the disguise of simple folk tales. Hebrew, a terrific vehicle for layered meanings, allows Agnon to pull off this feat. Hebrew is deceptive in its depths: the Hebrew Bible and its commentaries, the Mishnah and the Talmud, all resonate beneath the surface of this lyrical language, sending powerful ripples of history and heritage through words and phrases. Agnon is particularly adept at allowing these traditional Jewish texts to rise up out of the letters of his stories, creating richly textured meanings for the literate Hebrew reader. This is what makes Agnon so notoriously difficult to translate, and the translations so difficult to review. It is also what makes the lengthy, though rarely cumbersome, introductions in this collection so essential.
I had previously encountered Agnon in my own Yeshiva days when I read two shtetl stories that dealt with the love and warmth of the traditional religious household. Then, they struck me as stories that peered at the life of learning and prayer with much longing. "The Kerchief" was one of those stories and it now shows up, finely translated, in this new collection. I remembered this tale of a bar mitzvah boy, remembered the innocent love he had for his family and his heady anticipation of the coming of the Messiah, but I had no recollection whatsoever of the hypocrisy to be found in the cruel actions of his Jewish neighbors toward a needy beggar, or his strange, chaotic dreams. I did not remember understanding that the act of giving his mother's beautiful kerchief to the beggar to wrap his sores, the story's climax, signifies something more than a simple mitzvah in which the boy becomes a man; that it may be a rather more complex act of giving up the feminine, along with his naive vision of a world governed by simple redemption, on the eve of his manhood.
If the subtle wisdom of "The Kerchief" surprised me, Agnon's more modern stories in this collection took my breath away. In "Hill of Sand," a finely wrought portrait of a young artist in Israel, Agnon presents a young man who is crippled with anxiety and self-doubt. Hemdat, like Agnon himself, is a man with a religious past who wishes to become a writer. He begins to teach Hebrew to a lively young Russian woman who quickly becomes the object of his longing. Wholly unable to act on his desires, Hemdat withdraws into his small Jaffa apartment and further still, into his cramped and frazzled self. In his presentation of such a painfully self-conscious modern character, Agnon's own longing for simpler times is clearly felt. For if painful self-consciousness and alienation are the sum of the modern world, then a world filled with a modicum of traditional warmth and comfort seems infinitely appealing, even if individuality must be sacrificed. In "Hill of Sand" Agnon shows us a modern Israeli life that is bleak, angst-ridden. It's a life that blanches the soul, leaving individuals in the emptiness of secularism, and yet, for all Agnon's longing for the past, his great talent is to admit his characters to a modern tribe that knows it can never turn back the clocks.
Many of the stories in this collection are about scribes and written texts of one sort or another. In what the editors term the "ancestral stories," the written word is often magical and otherworldly, while in the "modern stories" it is a source of possible redemption. Agnon was a first-rate scholar, well-versed in the traditional Jewish texts, and in the end his own stories, ancestral and modern, can be seen as further contributions in the long line of commentaries that make up the Jewish learning tradition.
But there's a crucial difference. The stories in the Mishnah and the Talmud have clear moral messages. These books have lessons; they instill morality. Agnon's commentary offers no such moral instruction. Instead, he deals openly with ambiguity and uncertainty, two scarce items in the rigorous, factual world of the Talmud. And though Agnon's modern characters may seem lost and confused, unable to say what they want as they walk through life without the safety nets of community or helping hands of religion, nonetheless, they think for themselves in a way rarely found in the more colorful and cartoonish characters who inhabit the shtetl stories.
In Agnon's own influence on contemporary Israeli writers like Aharon Applefeld, Amos Oz, and A.B. Yehoshuah, the tradition continues, but in a modern setting of perpetual spiritual struggle. For those English readers who would have preferred Abraham to have paused, for even the briefest moment, before bringing Isaac to the altar, A Book That Was Lost is cause for celebration.
PoetryA Formal Feeling Comes: Poems in Form by Contemporary Women
Edited by Annie Finch
Story Line Press, $15.95
Over 90 years after the modernists eschewed meter for free verse, the argument over poetic formalism is still heated. In 1992, during a face-off between veteran free-verse champ Robert Bly and Young Turk New Formalist Brad Leithauser, audience members almost came to blows.
By now, the arguments equating "formalism" with "conservatism" are familiar ones. Poets don't have to stand on one side of the line or the other; many happily and fluidly switch back and forth between open and set forms, meter and free verse. But still, doubt lingers: is it retrograde to write sonnets? And why, in particular, has women's writing been left out of the debate?
In his 1987 article, "Notes on the New Formalism," Dana Gioia sets the tone for much of the discussion that has followed. He claims that until its revival by the so-called New Formalists, most poets of stature had abandoned form. "Literary journalism has long declared it defunct, and most current anthologies present no work in traditional forms by Americans written after 1960 ....It was a style that dared not speak its name, except in light verse. Even the trinominate, blue-haired lady laureates now wrote in free verse."
Gioia decries "the emergence of pseudo-formal verse" -- poems that look formal, smell formal, but on closer inspection reveal themselves to be the poetic equivalent of Velveeta cheese, without the strengths of either truly rigorous formal and metrical verse or of carefully-crafted poems in open form or free verse.
In her indispensible analysis of the cultural history of metrics, The Ghost of Meter: Culture and Prosody in American Free Verse (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, l993), Annie Finch explores what she calls "the metrical code" and examines the often-vexed relationship between meter and meaning. She claims that the "association of meter with constraint and rigidity became more and more common among poets by the turn of the century." Finch reiterates Timothy Steele's proposition in Missing Measures that the modernists confused meter with diction, unnecessarily identifying their dislike of Victorian excesses of style and subject matter with the underlying meter.
Finch shows that another aspect of the modernist rejection of free verse was "the association of regular meter with a sentimental, domestic, feminized poetic tradition....In the early 20th century, this female poetic tradition continued with the work of such poets as Sara Teasdale and Edna St. Vincent Millay, who continued to write in traditional poetic form even after the modernist revolt." Finch also asserts that the "fact that women's poetry was associated with sentimentality, and sentimentality with formal verse, meant that the full force of the modernist revolution -- both its misogyny and its hatred of the traditional and the bourgeois -- was brought to bear on the crafted female lyric."
There are shreds of this attitude in Gioia's reference to the "trinominate blue-haired lady laureates," and part of what is valuable about A Formal Feeling Comes is the way it reveals that hidden strand of formal women's poetry which persisted even while Pound, Williams, Joyce and other male modernists wanted to end the "idea of poetry for ladies."
In her introduction to this new anthology, Finch defines "formal" poetry as "poetry that foregrounds the artificial and rhetorical nature of poetic language by means of conspicuously repeated patterns." Finch includes many poems in set forms -- ballads, sonnets, sestinas, villanelles -- as well as many other metrical and non-metrical rhyming poems. Here, also, are poems in blank verse, syllabics, sapphics, and a range of other patterns, such as chants, blues, and charms.
Among the many pleasures of A Formal Feeling Comes are the wide variety of poets included and their accompanying statements on poetics, written especially for the anthology. If there is a voice of formalism, it is certainly not a homogeneous one. There is Rita Dove's non-metrical sonnet with a reversed Shakespearean rhyme scheme, "Persephone Underground," of which she writes, "The Demeter/Persephone cycle of betrayal/regenerations seems ideally suited for this form, since all three -- mother-goddess, daughter, and poet -- are struggling to sing in their chains."
There is Julia Alvarez' "Bilingual Sestina," of which I quote the second stanza and part of the third:
Of her work in form, Alvarez writes, "I think of form as territory that has been colonized, but that you can free. See, I feel subversive in formal verse. A voice is going to inhabit that form that was barred from entering it before!"
And then there is Molly Peacock's clever twenty-six-line telestich, "The Spell":
as well as Marilyn Nelson Waniek's moving "A Canticle for Abba Jacob," in rhyming iambic tetrameter/pentameter sections:
A Formal Feeling Comes brings together 60 contemporary women poets, including such well-known figures as Rita Dove, Marilyn Hacker, and Maxine Kumin, as well as underappreciated poets (Janet Lewis and Vassar Miller), and emerging writers (Elizabeth Alexander, Julie Fay, and Phyllis Levin). One can always play the "who-is-left-out-game," and I find myself missing, among others, Gwendolyn Brooks, June Jordan, Gjertrud Schnackenberg, and Rosanna Warren. But Annie Finch has done a great service in assembling this anthology: the next generation of women poets will not have to struggle to find their poetic foremothers writing in form, the way Anne Sexton and Tillie Olson "guiltily confessed to each other their private love for the work of Millay and Teasdale."
As Adrienne Rich notes in her essay "Format and Form," "What really matters is not line lengths or the way meter is handled, but the poet's voice and concerns refusing to be circumscribed or colonized by the tradition, the tradition just being a point of takeoff. In each case the poet refuses to let form become format, pushes at it, stretches the web, rejects imposed materials, claims a personal space and time and voice."
In Gail Mazur's poem "Whatever They Want," the poet-teacher throws off "the cool protections of irony" during a jam session with her students. Inspired by their "insatiable hungers" and "inexhaustible reality," she later dreams of giving them
What better touchstone for a poem? What better reckoning of poetry's paradox, its exacting freedom? What better way to describe the best poems in The Common, Mazur's third collection, where the language of emotional truth tastes bittersweet?
These are tough, canny, dangerous poems, full of heart. Mazur is a poet not of epiphany or nostalgia but of the telling commonplaces of lives, the odd juncture of grief and desire, the foggy "invisible line/in the middle of the bridge."
The speaker in The Common is a woman in midlife looking forward and back, who has "underestimated danger," tried on "a little madness" and survived enough of life's bargain to say: "What can the future be/but revision and repair?" Not good at relenting, she is still learning to love her "small bewildering part in this world."
The opening poems grow out of an off-rhyme of a move, Boston to Houston. They set up a theme of the entire book: displacement and the midlife tension between holding on and letting go. Mazur finds herself on the Texas coast, "half a country's distance/between the body and its biography." She has traded the Common and the Garden for the Buffalo Cafe, maples and dogwood for live oaks and palms, Brattle Street for bayous. It's a risky theme -- how easily it could come off as supercilious and whiny, the cultured carpetbagger in the land of AstroTurf. The poems succeed because of keen observation and fierce honesty.
A comic wit helps too, deflating any impulse toward grandiosity or self-pity. "What can I learn from the hummingbird,/a big thing like me?" one poem begins. Mazur is a meticulous creature-watcher. The funny-serious poem "In Houston" opens, "I'd dislocated my life, so I went to the zoo." She cannot help seeing her own angst reflected everywhere in the animals' cages: "Rhinos waited/for rain in the rhino-colored dirt, too grief-struck/to move their wrinkles, their horns too weak/to ever be hacked off by poachers for aphrodisiacs." Even the aviary, crowded with biodiversity and bird-babble, reminds her that "no bird can get its song sung right, separated from/models of its own species" and that she hasn't written a sentence in weeks. Finally, at the House of Nocturnal Mammals, she addresses her adopted soul-sister, the three-toed sloth, who stays resolutely calm while teased by a monkey:
Among the many sound-pleasures of these poems is their pace, the continual play of tension and release, suspense and rest. With a fine-tuned sense of timing, Mazur knows how to break her varied sentences across lines to bring out their music. The stirring poem "I'm a Stranger Here Myself" is a 45-line sentence that neither dawdles nor runs out of breath.
Mazur also has a knack for seizing on the singular image -- the more ironic or dissonant the better. The uncommonly common grackles that open the book, for instance. Or the statue of laconic Abe Lincoln overlooking the ground in Cambridge Common where raffish bands played to their stoned fans. The Celtics crowd at Boston Garden erupting during the national anthem on the first night of the Persian Gulf War. Young ballplayers in spring training appear "lovely as lakes" to the oldtimers in the stands. A sudden snake slithers "wild as migraine."
Compassion -- along with faithful attention to the natural world of plants, animals, and weather, and the displaced world of the homeless -- runs through these poems. So does the color blue -- by turns beautiful, electric, haunting. So does the live music of place names and plain speech.
It is in the third section of the book, fraught with remembrance and death, particularly her father's, that its title begins to resonate. The poems take up every means of recalling the past and the dead: snapshots, records, cassettes, dreams, songs, stories, relics, tombstones. They are all part of "memory's arsenal," or in another poem, its burr. "Nothing's ever lost to me," she writes.
Mazur's poems are grounded, though not mired, in daily life and memory. She knows the emotional weather of poems is local. Travel is "a way of trying/to let go, of lying." All the postcards and time-of-your-life snapshots can't mask what she remembers: "The acid of your fear could eat the world." Even at home, she tends to see shadows. Watching her cat chase its tail, she thinks: "Lucky kitten,/to keep forgetting the limitations/of his choices -- " When a small boy runs by joyfully with an armful of lilacs for his mother, she invents a darker scenario, a "what if" that dredges up Chernobyl and the synagogues of Poland.
Yet she also finds solace in the mundane. In Houston, so seasonless that "it was December but it wasn't December," she misses the "bitter tinny Boston smell of first snow,/the huddling in a cold bus tunnel." Or in the Common itself: walking there on a near-zero day, amid the anachronistic statues and the homeless huddled in bags and newspapers, she can, as she says in the title poem, still "take on faith, faith in Nature, that life/machinery groans and strains in the frozen limbs." "A Green Watering Can" is a hauntingly beautiful poem about her father gardening in the land of the hopeful dead. The same mingling of comic and sad, sacred and profane, occurs in "Family Plot," where she and her mother dig her father's grave:
No meanness in it, just the bittersweet taste of truth. Mazur doesn't seek or promise "something paradisical," a phrase from the book's last poem, "A Small Plane from Boston to Montpelier." Her small part in the world is too bewildering -- and common -- for that. In an image from that poem, it's more like a hurtling 12-seater with tinfoil wings, above the icy abyss. Precarious, like these poems, and uncommonly moving.